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New arguments in legal battle over teacher work rules; PDE and SRC press urgency

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The legal battle over whether Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has the power to unilaterally impose new work rules on the District’s teachers is getting more intense with the filing of new arguments urging quick action by the Supreme Court.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) maintains that "the collective bargaining agreement … has proven a particularly high barrier to the District effecting reforms essential to providing services in a fiscally responsible and manageable manner."

PDE says that the SRC needs the "extraordinary powers" it is seeking so that it can put the School District on sound financial footing and, ultimately, return it to local control.

A Monday response from the SRC to the arguments the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers made against its original motion also takes that position. The brief says that resolution "cannot wait" regarding the issue about its powers to impose new work rules and reduce the role of seniority in teacher transfers, layoffs and recalls. It points out that budgets for the District and for individual schools are being prepared now and that the process of transferring and assigning teachers for next year has started.

"The new rules governing staffing requirements of teachers and other bargaining unit members are being implemented now, with the annual staffing process for the upcoming school year already underway," the brief says.

An accompanying statement says that without quick resolution of the legal issue about the SRC’s powers to change the rules for transfer and teacher placement, staffing decisions affecting tens of thousands of students "will be driven by adult interests and not the interests of students."

The PFT had argued that the court had no jurisdiction and that the so-called "non-mandatory" work rules under dispute must be resolved through collective bargaining.

At the beginning of this school year, the District recalled laid-off counselors not according to seniority, but in a way that returned most of them to the school they had left. This resulted in the recall of some less-experienced teachers over those with more experience who had been the second or third counselor at some larger schools.

If the legal issue remains unsettled and the PFT prevails in grievances to restore laid-off teachers and counselors based on seniority instead of the District’s process, the next school year will be chaotic, the District argues.

That could result in "mid-year reassignments of as many as a thousand teachers, counselors and other staff."

This brief also says flatly that the SRC did not forfeit its power to impose terms on the union just because it negotiated several contracts with the PFT and bargained several times on so-called "non-mandatory" work rule issues, including teacher assignment and the use of preparation time.

"It is true that the SRC and the School District have shown restraint over the last 13 years by refraining from invoking their … powers, and preferring consensual outcomes to litigation," the brief reads. But "agreeing to contractual provisions involving non-mandatory subjects of bargaining in the past does not give those provisions perpetual life once the contract expires."

The District statement announcing the filing of the new brief says that "at its core, this case is about the ability of the School District to operate its schools in a way that improves student achievement."

"People understand that the issues at stake here are urgent," said Superintendent William Hite in a statement. "I have heard from parents, principals, and numerous teachers who support the changes we are making. They know how important it is for every student to have the right teacher with the right skill set, right now."

As for the state, the PDE brief notes that the District’s "crisis … effectively compelled the [General Assembly] to appropriate … a substantial amount of one-time funding … to enable the District to pay for basic services."

Although not speaking to the state’s school funding responsibilites, the PDE brief says that the reforms at issue are critical to the District’s educational mission.

"The District can ill afford to pay any awards the PFT might obtain and should not continue to be threatened" if the PFT grievances over teacher layoffs and recall should prevail, PDE says, adding that "collective bargaining must be circumscribed by statute when necessary to provide for a thorough and efficient public education in every part of the Commonwealth."

PFT president Jerry Jordan issued a statement in response to the PDE brief, calling it "outrageous" because, he says, the state is the cause of the District’s continued fiscal crisis.

"One of the most ridiculous assertions made by the PDE’s brief is that the SRC needs the freedom to impose working conditions in schools because of the district’s financial distress — a crisis that was created by the very administration the SRC represents!" his statement said.

The SRC took control of the District nearly 13 years ago, after the state declared the District academically and fiscally distressed. The SRC "must be permitted to execute the extraordinary powers … to enact reforms to achieve the financial stability that someday will enable the Secretary of Education … to declare an end to the District’s financial distress and return governance of the District to the Philadelphia Board of Education," the PDE brief says.

The PFT contract expired last August, and negotiations began more than a year ago, reaching no result.

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